How rethinking the medium can clarify our message
“How was church today?” Surely I’ve been asked it a million times and have asked it my fair share as well. But the more I learn about the nature and mission of the church, the more this question rubs me the wrong way.
It assumes that church is an event with a beginning and end, something that happens on a weekly basis. It presumes that the quality of church can be determined based on the quality of music, preaching or teaching.
Even more disturbing is that this question comes from a consumer mind-set. We have become consumers, showing up on Sundays to fill up on the smorgasbord of religious goods and services and going home only to forget that church can’t possibly be over, since we are the church. Deep down we really know that the church isn’t an event or a building or an institution. But for some reason we have such a hard time living or talking as though the church is actually a people, a community.
Acts 2:42-47 is a passage that communicates a clear understanding of the church as a people who are devoted to Jesus and do life together, often in similar ways to how we “do church” today. The most surprising part of this passage is that this community is a highly inclusive one with a singular and specific focus. The verses that frame this passage (vv. 41, 47) speak of the evangelistic efforts of the church. The sole reason for the different functions of the church is showing and telling people about Jesus.
The Great Commandment and the Great Commission give us plenty of reason to believe that calling the world to repentance and to relationship with Jesus is the primary function of the church. Our Confession of Faith (Article 7) communicates this clearly: “Christ commands the church to make disciples of all nations by calling people to repent, and by baptizing and teaching them to obey Jesus. Jesus teaches that disciples are to love God and neighbor by telling the good news and by doing acts of love and compassion.”
Still, when we look at our churches it doesn’t look as though this is our mission. Why is this? It could be the medium.
Marshall McLuhan, a famous communication and popular culture theorist during the first half of the 20th century, coined the phrase “the medium is the message” that says the medium used in communication creates a symbiotic relationship that determines how the message is received. So when it comes to the church, the way we “do church” communicates as much about what we believe about the church as does what we say.
If McLuhan is correct, then we have to ask ourselves what we are implicitly communicating to those inside and outside our churches. For example, what does it communicate when we bicker about building projects or worry about worship style? Could it be that the medium—the Sunday morning worship service and all its trappings—has caused us to become consumers, ultimately changing the message that we think we are communicating?
Through many of our worship services and programs, we are subtly communicating that it’s really all about what happens inside the walls. “How was church today?” is a result of the decades-old medium communicating that each Christian is a consumer who comes to church to get something.
The church is not a building or a program or even a worship service. The church is a community centered upon the person and work of Jesus. This community exists to love, serve and equip each other, so that they might go out into the world, continuing to take God’s kingdom to a world in need. Ultimately, the church exists for a singular purpose—to show Jesus to the world and tell the world about Jesus.
So what do we do to change our message? The key is to stop talking about numbers, to step outside the doors of the church building. Our friends at Trailhead Church in Denver, Colo., recognize this and have changed the medium. Every second Sunday they forego a traditional worship gathering and choose to be the church by loving and serving the community.
If the medium is the message, I believe that Trailhead is communicating the mission of the church and message of Jesus crystal clear. This month may we look at our own churches, checking to see if we are creating consumers or servants. May we check our medium and make sure that our message is crystal clear.